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National Flower

Unique to St Helena

Where flowers degenerate man cannot live.{d}

Our national flower, thought to be extinct, was rediscovered in 1980

The flower and its re-discovery

{e}

As is explained below, the St Helena Ebony trochetiopsis ebenus is not related to commercially-grown timber Ebony, but is instead a relative of the mallow family malvaceae. Until 1980 it was thought to be extinct. Then Charlie Benjamin climbed down a precipitous cliff at Blue Point, near the Asses Ears, without proper climbing equipment, to more closely investigate a curious plant spotted from the top with binoculars by his brother, George. This turned out to be an Ebony plant. Immediately steps were taken to cultivate St Helena’s lost Ebony. You can hear (right) or see (below) an interview with George Benjamin extracted from Charles Frater’s 1991 film ‘Saint Helena, South Atlantic Ocean’{e}. A related species, the Tree Ebony trochetiopsis melanoxylon is now completely extinct.

The St Helena Ebony is now critically endangered in the wild, being reduced to two wild individuals on a cliff, though old roots are sometimes found washed out of eroding slopes (relicts of its former abundance). It is widely propagated around the island from cuttings, especially at The Millennium Forest, and many island gardens now boast a fine Ebony bush.

Trochetiopsis ebenus has staminodes that are dark maroon or ‘black’. It is related to the St Helena Redwood trochetiopsis erythroxylon.

A national poll was held in 2011 asking if the Ebony should become the national flower of St Helena. The results were that 87% were in favour of adopting the Ebony.

The Ebony appears on the reverse of our 20p coin. Its re-discoveror, George Benjamin, is commemorated with an arboretum named after him.

History of The Ebony

Curiously the St Helena Ebony is not related to the African timber tree of the same name. It is actually thought to have evolved from Mallows, or possibly Hibiscuses, its closest relatives being a group of Madagascan shrubs by the Latin name dombeya.

How it arrived on St Helena is a mystery. It is thought that the dombeya group might have once extended across the whole of southern Africa, in which case it is entirely possible that seeds were brought here on the wind, or floated here, or were carried here in the guts of birds. Either way, fossil remains show that dombeya were established here at least eight million years ago; one of the island’s first colonists.

Eight million years of evolution and adaptation to its new environments resulted in three wholly distinct species, each unique in the world. Sadly, once St Helena was discovered and settled by man they did not fare well; some worse than others.

The first group grew in the hotter lower-lying areas, forming dense forests of relatively tall but unfortunately slow-growing trees, the Ebony or Blackwood Tree. These did not survive the voracious appetites of both goats, left here by the early Portuguese as food for passing ships, and the early settlers demanding a ready-supply of hardwood for building. The Ebony Tree trochetiopsis melanoxylon became extinct in the late 1700s.

Much higher up another species evolved into an even taller tree, sometimes reaching a height of 8m, with rich-coloured red wood. This is the species we know today as the Redwood trochetiopsis erythroxylon. Redwoods too nearly died out following the arrival of settlers, being reduced to only two plants, but thanks to modern conservation there is now a healthy, though still limited population.

Finally, in the area between the other two, on moderately high ground another species established itself. Responding to the local climate the Dwarf Ebony formed into a low-growing shrub which was no use to the early settlers, though it only barely survived the goats. This is the St Helena Ebony trochetiopsis ebenus we know today thought in the 1970s to have been lost but rediscovered in 1980.

Our previous national flower

Arum Lily on 1922-1937 George V stamps

Arum Lily, zantedeschia aethiopica

Our previous national flower was the Arum Lily zantedeschia aethiopica, a native of South Africa. They grow across the island, and in bloom are a beautiful sight, much used for decoration.

It is not known how Arum Lilies got to St Helena, but presumably they were imported by gardeners and escaped into the wild. The first known reference to them is in ‘St Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island{1}’ where they are recorded as growing wild, and in 1879 Professor James Mackintosh wrote The arum lily is accounted, for some reason, the emblematic flower or badge of St Helena, and is a conspicuous element of church decoration upon festal occasions. They are featured on the 1922-1937 George V stamps (right) and were later featured on our original 10p coin from 1984-1998 and the original £10 note (underneath the signatures). An Arum Lily forms the centrepiece of the W A Thorpe & Sons logo.

It also is not known by what method this flower was chosen as our national flower, or what formal process made it so. The Professor James Mackintosh quote above simply refers to them as the emblematic flower or badge of St Helena, not formally as our National Flower. One theory we have heard, which if you know how Government on St Helena works on St Helena certainly rings true, is that one day an official form arrived, perhaps from an encyclopaedia or a travel guide or maybe even from the government in the UK, asking for information about the island’s National Symbols: Flag; Motto; Coins; National Flower, etc. The form was handed down from superior to inferior until it reached a relatively lowly individual who had nobody to delegate it to, so they simply filled in the first thing that came to mind and sent it back up the chain. And thus our national motto, flower, etc. were defined. Well, there are dafter theories…

The Arum Lily is actually an invasive species so is really not appropriate to be the national flower of St Helena.

Please NoteThere was a temporarily-successful industry exporting Lily Bulbs to the UK in the 1930s, but this was a different flower - the Japanese Easter Lily lilium longiflorum . The Arum Lily zantedeschia aethiopica has tubers, not bulbs.

Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless: peacocks and lilies, for instance.{f}

Read More

Below: Article: The Saint who risked all to rescue a plantArticle: Why we need to celebrate the St Helena EbonyEbony BookletArticle: Saints and Sinners: Arum Lily zantedeschia aethiopica

Article: The Saint who risked all to rescue a plant

By Simon Pipe, 3rd May 2013{2}

The day Charlie Benjamin climbed up a cliff with a flower in his teeth may become part of St Helena folklore. That perilous act brought back the island’s Ebony plant from apparent extinction. There has since been talk of declaring it the national flower. Charlie’s daughter, Wendy Benjamin, wants to ensure the story of his climb will live on, just like the flower he rescued.

Charlie Benjamin’s climb
Charlie Benjamin’s climb

A single photograph was taken of Charlie’s climb in November 1980 (right - yellow jumper, blue jeans, about ⅔ of the way down the picture). It shows how treacherous a task he took on; and even that spectacular picture cannot fully convey how unnerving it must have been, clinging to a cliff on one of the steepest parts of the island, several hundred feet above the wild waves of St Helena’s southern coast.

An island benefactor has now promised to pay for copies of the picture to be hung in key places around the island, including the Museum of St Helena and the St Helena National Trust office. A copy will be offered for display on the RMS St Helena (1990-2018).

The picture was taken by Quentin Cronk, then a young student, who on a two week research visit when the long-lost Ebony was spotted.

His companion and guide, George Benjamin, saw a few unfamiliar flowers on a cliff during a tea break near the Asses Ears, in the rugged west of the island, when the pair stopped for tea.

When George and I found the Ebony that day in 1980, recalls Quentin, George said that the only person he knew who had a chance of getting it was his brother Charlie, as he was the most skilled islander in cliff climbing. He was able to get down to the most inaccessible fishing spots at the bottom of cliffs - and come back up the cliffs with a heavy bag of fish! This was a skill only a few of the old time fishermen knew and Charlie was the best. I remember that when we showed Charlie the Ebony cliff he sat in silence looking at it for maybe 15 minutes, as if he was solving a chess problem. My thought was, ‘Oh no, it’s too difficult. He’s going to refuse to go down.’ Then eventually he said, ‘Yes, I can do it,’ and George and he went off to the cliff edge with a rope to start the descent. I stayed on the cliff opposite, watching them, and it was fascinating to see Charlie traverse down the cliff with great skill and get to the Ebony. He put cuttings in a bag, and it was from these that we propagated the species. He also (to keep his hands free) put a flowering shoot of Ebony between his teeth. When Charlie’s head came up over the top of the cliff and I saw the Ebony flower between his teeth, that was the first time I was 100 per cent sure it was the Ebony.

Quentin, now a globally respected academic, took a single photograph from his perch on an opposite cliff. That dramatic image has been published in a pamphlet and a copy was printed for the Museum of St Helena, but until now it has not been on permanent display. With the excitement it was hard to remember to take any other photos, says Quentin.

The two small ‘stick figures’ are George and Charlie: George in black at the top and Charlie wearing blue jeans down on the cliff. The rope between them can faintly be seen. There was no climbing equipment on the island then. Basically Charlie was ‘free climbing’ with the rope to steady himself. It was indeed a brave act to go down the cliff to get the Ebony. When I tell the story I always mention Charlie’s role.

Rebecca Cairns-Wicks and Phil Lambdon described the climb for a Museum of St Helena exhibition to mark the 30th anniversary of the Ebony’s re-discovery.

On the 11th November, they wrote, Quentin and George walked from Wild Ram Spring to the Ball Alley and down to Castle Rock and round under the Asses Ears. Here they found old pieces of Ebony and Tea Plant. Fragments of wood can still sometimes be found brought to the surface after rains, a depressing reminder that the hillsides were once richly covered in vegetation. From there they walked on to Frightus. It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and whilst sitting down to have rest and a drink of tea (George’s was always black and very sweet) George spotted an unusual plant growing on the cliff. George told Quentin he could not climb down to it: ‘Not if you give me one thousand pounds I won’t be going down there. Perhaps my brother Charlie would go’. Charlie agreed to go along, with his step-daughter Rosie Peters, who had been giving George and Quentin lifts round the island for their explorations. So it was, two days later, that George and Quentin returned with Charlie and Rosie, and with ropes and stakes they made an attempt to recover the plant: a plant they dared hope might prove to be a long-lost endemic.

With one rope firmly anchored to stakes to climb by and another tied around his waist as a safety line that George held fast to, Charlie descended the cliff. Quentin, standing where he could see Charlie, helped with directions. When Charlie returned he brought with him a few precious cuttings from one of the two plants he found on the cliff, together with a flower and a seed pod. On seeing the plant up close, Rosie recalls, George and Quentin knew immediately that it was the Ebony. The experience of that moment on the cliff was one not to be forgotten - it was a very happy moment for all. Collecting the cuttings had required heroic effort and was a cause for celebration as the men shared a well-deserved drink of brandy that evening on their return to Pounceys. Charlie was to return once more to the Ebony site in 1983 to collect cuttings from the second plant on the cliff. He declined a request to go a third time, to collect soil samples. He knew his wife would be worried.

Charlie Benjamin and Wendy
Charlie Benjamin and Wendy, in later years

George Benjamin went on to be awarded the British Empire Medal for his great efforts to re-establish the Ebony, which now grows around the island, and to raise public awareness of the importance of the island’s endemic plants - those that grew nowhere else in the world. George died in May 2012.

Charlie’s reward was the satisfaction and honour of knowing his bravery and skill had made possible the recovery of the Ebony. He died on 28th April 2007. As the anniversary of his passing came round, Wendy contacted St Helena Online to see whether his role could be commemorated in some way, partly for the benefit of future generations of her family. She was delighted to be told that pictures of the climb were to be printed for hanging on the island:

What can I say… emotions have sure kicked in. But thank you so much. My son will be overwhelmed with this news.

Some more permanent recognition may yet be possible. And perhaps one other event of 2012 will also serve as a tribute to Charlie and George: the birth of a baby girl to Rémi Bruneton and Sophy Thorpe. She was born on the island, and they named her Ebony.

Editor’s Note: as of November 2015 the ledge from which Charlie Benjamin started his precarious descent has been christened by the St Helena National Trust as ‘Charlie’s Ebony Revival Ledge’.

Article: Why we need to celebrate the St Helena Ebony

By Jamie Roberts, Director of the St Helena National Trust, published in the St Helena Herald 5th November 2010{2}

Ebony

On 11th November 1980 George Benjamin and Quentin Cronk found a small tree growing off a remote cliff. Retrieved two days later by Charlie Benjamin, George’s brother, it turned out to be the long extinct St Helena Ebony. As a pivotal moment in the history of St Helena it might not be up there with the establishment of the British colony or the arrival of Napoleon. But the rediscovery of the St Helena Ebony back in late 1980 was a crucial turning point in many respects - for conservation, tourism development and not least to provide fresh hope for the island’s future.

Why? Because it showed that there were (and are) exciting discoveries still to be made on St Helena. Huge areas of the island are still largely unexplored - mainly the vertical cliff faces. We simply don’t know how many more endemics are yet to be discovered in these remote parts. But it also demonstrated that islanders were now starting to take responsibility for conserving its rare plants and landscapes. In that respect George Benjamin, a home-grown conservationist, was a true pioneer. St Helena was finally serious about conserving its own natural environment, after hundreds of years of destruction by the colonial powers.

Fast forward thirty years and all the talk is about tourism. It’s clear that attracting more tourists is essential to creating a viable long-term future for St Helena. Improving access, either through an airport or a quicker boat service, is essential. But unless the island is clear about what tourists will come to see, and acts to protect what is special about this incredible place, then all that investment will be wasted.

St Helena National Trust logo

The Ebony on its own won’t attract hordes of tourists to St Helena. But the Ebony - along with all the other St Helena endemics - does contribute to making the island unique, distinctive and special. In other words it’s another reason for people to want to visit - alongside the striking landscapes, the built heritage and the local culture. Put all of those elements together and you have the makings of a viable tourism destination.

We shouldn’t take the island’s incredible natural environment for granted though. An enormous amount of effort goes into conserving St Helena’s endemic plants. Take the Bastard Gumwood for example: less than six months ago it was the rarest tree in the world. How did we know that? Well, there was just one tree in existence - you can’t get any rarer than that. It took an intensive effort to get productive seed from this old tree; there was only a two or three in a thousand chance of getting a seedling to grow. Yet today almost one hundred and fifty young Bastard Gumwood plants have been successfully propagated and planted back into the wild. This is all thanks to the passion and commitment of the A&NRD nursery and a handful of volunteers. Without that the Bastard Gumwood would probably be extinct, or close to it. Instead it is an inspiring story of ecological recovery and team working.

Perhaps if George Benjamin and his companions hadn’t found that unfamiliar looking tree thirty years ago then St Helena conservation wouldn’t have grown to become what it is today. When George speaks about conserving the island’s plants his enthusiasm is infectious. That such a small island could produce someone with so much passion and expertise for its flora is extraordinary. And there are others - Stedson Stroud, Vanessa Thomas, the staff of the Conservation Section. Saints who are forging important and exciting careers in conservation. These people are working long hours in tough conditions to protect what makes St Helena special. They are proof that it won’t be easy to keep this island alive. In conservation as in other areas St Helena must fight for its future. We have plenty of threats to overcome: invasives, soil erosion, water shortages. We can’t just sit back and expect others to do everything for us. In protecting the Ebony this island is protecting its future. And if we can say that 11th November 1980 was the point at which conservation started to be taken seriously on St Helena, then that is a very significant date indeed.

Ebony Booklet

For the 30th Anniversary of the rediscovery of the Ebony in 2010 the Museum of St Helena published a booklet about the history and conservation of the Ebony, which you can download and read{g}.

Article: Saints and Sinners: Arum Lily zantedeschia aethiopica

Published in the St Helena Herald 5th August 2011{2}

Arum Lily, zantedeschia aethiopica

This week’s Saints and Sinners is another one which divides opinion! Adopted as the National flower, the Arum is loved by many, making it a popular ornamental for flower arrangements and gardens. The Arum lily is an herbaceous perennial plant, found in the damper, higher altitude areas of St Helena. It can grow to 1m tall, with large clumps of broad, arrow-shaped, dark green, glossy leaves. The flowers are large, with a pure white spathe (a petal like structure which helps to attract pollinators to the yellow flowers arranged on a type of spike called a spadix).

Although the Arum lily is used as an emblem for the island, depicted on crests, logos in artwork, it is in fact a real sinner! It is native to Southern Africa and is an invasive species here on St Helena. It is thriving in the moist, high altitude areas of the island and is spreading into the last remaining endemic habitats. At High Peak, one of the restoration sites for the Darwin Project, National Trust staff, have been working hard to dig up Arum lilies, which are spreading into the tiny fragment of cabbage tree woodland which remains at the peak.

Arum lilies grow and spread extremely quickly, out rivaling the endemic vegetation. They can cover an area of ground entirely, blocking out light to native plants and taking up more water and nutrients from the soil, choking the endemic vegetation.

Do we need to start looking for another flower to show off our natural heritage? There are many of us who feel that the St Helena Ebony should be recognised as the National flower of the island. The Ebony has beautiful large white flowers which turn pink with age. It is an endemic which means it is unique to St Helena and found nowhere else in the world. It was thought to be extinct for over 100 years before being rediscovered by George Benjamin and Quentin Cronk in 1980. Conservationists are working hard to re-establish healthy populations of ebony so that it will once again flourish on St Helena. Let us know what you think. Should the island be actively promoting the Ebony as the National flower?

LOL

Credits:
{a} Sheena Isaac{b} St Helena National Trust{c} mongabay.com{d} Napoleon{e} Copyright © 1991 Film Unit, used with permission{f} John Ruskin{g} Lucy Ceasar for the Museum of St Helena

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Footnotes:
{1} …including the Geology, Fauna, Flora and Meteorology, by John Melliss, published in 1875.{2} @@RepDis@@

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